TABLETALK: CONSIDER THE DUMPLINGCochan’s Rabbit and Dumplings

From the humble pierogie of Eastern Europe to the shapely jiao-zi of China, dumplings offer chefs a versatile template for creating pleasures both savory and sweet. Every cuisine has some variation of this staple starch. Chicken and dumplings figure into the cooking of the American South and dumplings by other names, Italian gnocchi for example, appear on the menus of restaurants from modest to upscale.

The term “dumpling” can be roughly defined as a portion of dough that’s boiled and served as an accompaniment with a dish. Dumplings may also be steamed or pan-fried, as in shumai and gyoza, respectively. Dumpling dough is minimally kneaded, resulting in a more tender texture than pasta. Dumplings can also be filled with pretty much anything, limited only by a chef’s imagination.

At Cochon, Chef Steven Stryjewski offers up a Rabbit and Dumplings entrée that pays homage to Southern cuisine. Served in an individual cast-iron skillet, this rustic dish incorporates coarse chunks of wintry root vegetables such as turnips, carrots and onions. The thyme in the stew adds complexity to the broth, which is loaded with tender shreds of pulled rabbit. The four dumplings atop the stew are reminiscent of biscuits, browned on top and of notable size. They provide a textural contrast to the stew, rounding off the edges of this comforting, country-style dish.

At Vizard’s on the Avenue, Chef Kevin Vizard’s playfully-named Chicken and Dumplings entrée presents pillow-soft gnocchi in the role of its namesake starch. The dish’s light sauce is dressed up with three different types of wild mushrooms and fava beans. The potato gnocchi absorb just a touch of sauce – enough to provide flavor but not so much as to overwhelm. The dumplings are an accompaniment to the poultry. The centerpiece is the roasted poulet rouge – chicken raised according to the French Label Rouge specifications, akin to a free-range chicken but with a fancier pedigree. “The French rules are a little more stringent,” says Vizard. “They use no hormones of course, and while they cost a little more, their flavor is better.” The chicken’s skin is crisp and well-seasoned, the meat prepared in an “airline cut” in which the ribs are removed but the first wing joint is left on. This preserves much of the on-the-bone flavor while allowing a hassle-free and relatively boneless route of attack for the diner’s knife and fork.

While the dumplings mentioned above are robust and substantial, filled dumplings tend to be more ephemeral, with the starch wrapper acting as a veneer for the morsel inside. At GW Fins in the French Quarter, Chef Tenney Flynn’s Lobster Dumplings have maintained a fixed presence on his oft-changing menu. These fragrant gems are filled with a mousseline incorporating diced Maine lobster, lobster stock, lobster roe, egg and lots of cream. “We serve them with a beurre-blanc sauce, tomato concassé and shaved fennel poached in lobster stock and saffron,” Flynn says. “It has been a popular appetizer ever since we opened.” Look for additional dumpling specials to rotate through the menu. Flynn has offered mushroom and crabmeat dumplings in the past as an appetizer and is planning to add another dish inspired by Peking Duck featuring scallions, duck and finely-diced duck cracklings. “The dumplings help keep everything in one place, and also provide a little starch to a recipe that might otherwise be really light,” Flynn says.

Practitioners of the art of filled dumplings include most Asian restaurants. The gyoza at Horinoya are delicious; delicate, thin-skinned morsels filled with pork and green onion whose bellies are pan-seared until crisp, adding a whiff of caramelization. Nearby Singha features small dumplings bunched at the top with a richer, more assertive accompanying sauce and fried scallions as a garnish. Royal China offers up many dumpling variations on its popular dim sum menu.

Dumpling evolution approaches apotheosis in Chinese cuisine, which offers well over 100 variations, including sweet ones filled with delicious sesame paste. More than a traditional holiday treat, certain dumplings signify prosperity and good fortune. Different fillings herald different fortunes: cultural anthropologists and King Cake aficionados should note the tradition of hiding a coin within dumplings – the lucky person finding the coin will enjoy prosperity in the year ahead.

But filled dumplings, when made from scratch, are extremely labor intensive. This Achilles heel explains the general infrequency of thoroughly homemade dumplings as well as the common reliance on the pre-made dumplings wrappers. Therefore, to best gain an appreciation for the effort that goes into their creation, I recently made pierogies. My grandmother used to make these for family reunions and I have a sentimental spot for this particular comfort food. 

The first step is to make simple dough of flour, egg and water. The word “simple” refers to the dough, not the actual process of its manufacture. This project ground to a halt at mid-point when my hands were covered in a clingy spackle of overly-moist dough and I found myself needing more flour. With none handy, this led to experiments with picking things up with my elbows and the backs of my hands, resulting in remnants of dough affixed to the backside of refrigerator handles and measuring cups, where they would eventually harden like papier-mâché booby traps.

Winding up with a softball-sized dough ball ready for rolling, next I prepped the filling. I peeled and boiled the potatoes, then whipped them in a standing mixer with sautéed onion, butter and milk. Rolling out the dough was akin to trying to flatten a rubber band; the dough shrank back to its original dimensions after each pass with the pin. I had a dumpling tool, a hinged plastic device that allowed me to place a stamped round of dough upon it, a dollop of mashed potatoes in the center pocket, then close the tool which allegedly folds and crimps the dumpling. In fact it ejected the dough and potatoes out of the hinged end, resulting in a sad, unusable mess. So I filled them by hand the old-fashioned way, moistening and pinching the edges closed. Just past the two-hour mark I had about 12 fair-sized dumplings ready for the pot.

In the end, about two and a half hours of messy labor translated three potatoes, a few cups of flour, a couple of eggs and some butter, onions and breadcrumbs into something much greater. They were warm, filling and unpretentiously delicious. There was nothing fancy about their ingredients, but the effort in the preparation made them special. The whole was greater than the sum of its parts; this embodies what makes simple foods so good – the care that elevates humble ingredients into something sublime. Here’s hoping that New Orleans will soon expand its dumpling offerings and celebrate this most honest of foods.

DUMPLING DEVOTION
Cochon
930 Tchoupitoulas St.
588-2123

Vizard’s On the Avenue
2203 St. Charles Ave.
529-9912

GW Fins
808 Bienville St.
581-3467

Horinoya
920 Poydras St.
561-8914

Singha Thai Café
413 Carondelet St.
581-2205

Royal China Restaurant
600 Veterans Blvd.
831-9633